A few weeks ago we were asked to look after the class fish during the half-term school holiday. Easy enough, just feed it daily and change the water when it gets murky was our handed-down knowledge of fish-management. So when we observed the fish swimming at the surface apparently gulping air, even our limited grasp of fish-biology suggested that something was not quite right. After a short web-surf our anxiety was confirmed: our fish was exhibiting high stress behaviour – it was being poisoned by toxic waste – the waste it makes itself. We learned that a fish-tank is a delicate and complex eco-system. Too big a fish in too small a tank, over-feeding, stagnation and infrequent complete water changes with toxic (chlorinated) tap-water are the commonest ways we upset this delicate balance. We were unintentionally killing the fish! The remedy was obvious: we had to learn about fish and learn how to maintain the fish-tank-eco-system. And fast! The fish was delivered back to school in a much bigger tank, complete with light, filter, pump, and the output of our learning – written instructions. The reaction was: “Wow! We can’t believe this is the same fish. It looks and behaves completely differently. It looks happy”.
This life-lesson reminded me of a book that I read some years ago called “Fish!” which involves the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle and a story of how the fish-mongers inspired others to dramatically improve their own toxic work places. The message in the story is that we all swim in the emotional toxic waste that we ourselves create; each of us has the choice to commit to reducing our toxic emotional waste emissions; we can contract to hold each other to account on this commitment; and collectively we have the power to drain our own toxic emotional waste swamps. This led to an “eureka” moment: Improvement can not happen in a toxic emotional environment. So how do we know we have one? What are the symptoms and signs? With this insight I believe we can answer that question by just looking and listening.
And if you fancy a diet of near-pure toxic emotional waste all you have to do is read a daily newspaper. Yeuk!
Money is the “fuel” that all organisations need to survive because all endeavours incur costs. It is the flow of money that is important – static money is just a number. Money is used to buy time – more specifically LIFE-time. We trade our life-time for money which we then use to buy the goods and services that we need to survive in the modern world. These goods and services are delivered by processes that require people’s time to design, implement, operate and improve. So we all want the best value-for-money that we can get; the best value-for-lifetime. So what happens when the flow of money is constrained? Value, Lifetime and Money are interdependent – restrict the flow of any of the three and all three slow down. It is inevitable. With this perspective it does appear that the finance tail can wag the quality dog; and the lifetime tail can wag the quality dog too. So when you experience low quality goods or services try asking this question: “Is it the flow of money, motivation or both that is the root cause?” Stories please ….
My focus this week has been to ask the question “What blocks improvement?”. The answers that I found most interesting were “I didn’t realise there was a problem.” and “I feel there is a problem but I don’t know where to focus my attention.” This set me pondering and eventually I had a bit of an “eureka” moment. It isn’t something that is present that creates this blindness – it is something that is missing. And the only way you can see what isn’t there is by comparison with when it is there – just like the game of “Spot the Difference”. When I compared what I saw with what I know is possible the thing I didn’t see was a fast-feedback loop. Hence the doodle. It appears that there are at least four dimensions to feedback – sign, magnitude, accuracy and timing. The speed of the feedback needs to be appropriate to the speed of the improvement; so if we want rapid improvement we need a fast-and-accurate feedback loop – a learning loop. A slow or inaccurate learning loop not only doesn’t work – it can actually make the problem worse. So, my take-home this week is to actively search for the learning loops and if I don’t see one then I have something to focus on improving.
One of the scariest feelings I experience is when I am asked “What should we do?” or “What would you do?” and there is an expectation that I should know what to do … and I don’t.
Do I say “I don’t know” or do I play for time and spout some b*****t and hope my lack of knowledge is not exposed?
Reflecting on this uncomfortable, and oft repeated, experience I am led to some questions:
1. Where does the expectation come from? The person asking, myself or both?
2. Where does the feeling of fear come from? What am I scared of? Who am I scared of?
Pondering these questions I have the fleeting impression that my fear comes from me. I am afraid of disappointing myself. It is me that I am scared of.
Then the impression is replaced by a conscious process of looking for evidence that proves that it can’t be me – it must be someone else making me feel scared – and to feel better I have to shift the blame from myself.
Oooooo … that’s a bit of an “Eureka” moment!
And now I have a new option. Choose to behave like of a victim of myself and shift the blame; or choose to address the problem – my deep fear of part of myself.
Phew! I feel better already – I have a new opportunity to explore …